The twenty minute drive to the nearest town was pleasant in the morning sun. Not too warm, not too cool yet.
Just right to have the windows down in the Tahoe to let the breeze blow my reddish brown hair and the sun hit my already tanned arms.
So it seems I have told you a lot about Ray and very little about myself. Well, that is how it always went with him.
He spoke very little about himself. But, I suppose it may be crucial later on for you to know who I am, who I was, and who I am trying to become.
I was a timid college student majoring in psychology and criminal justice at a Southern California university when I started taking an interest in martial arts. I was raised in Seattle and happy to leave the gloom for the sun of SoCal. Camilla Jean Sheridan. Some people called me Cam, some called me CJ. I had mostly acquaintances, not necessarily friends. I had no family either. My parents were killed when I was very young and I had been raised by a great aunt, Cora Lee. She had passed as well right before I started college. She had left me her house and a very old car. I sold the house and packed my things in that old Buick and made a new life.
I concentrated on my studies, already having a good background in the arts. Aunt Cora had seen to it I was raised with art, literature, music, and poetry. I hadn t been allowed to date or hang out. But being a solitary person, I don t think it bothered me not being a typical teenager. I soaked up knowledge like a sponge and made my own fun in that.
I had also studied, on my own, mechanics. I loved cars. I dabbled a bit in medicine and probably could have passed entrance exams for nursing school, but I didn t want to try at that time.
In college, I lived in an off campus apartment using some of the inheritance that aunt Cora provided. I would roller skate to classes and take long solitary walks on the beach. It was on the beach I began to notice a man a few times a week, early in the morning, practicing Tai Chi. His movements caught my attention, though I tried not to let on over the course of several weeks. He displayed a true movement of meditation, his slow relaxed and graceful movements each flowing into the next like a ballet. It was quite hypnotizing. Once in a while he would catch me staring. And one day, as he finished his coordinated practice, he walked toward me. I had been caught and I had mixed emotions of wanting to flee and longing to know more about the art, and the mysterious man who made it look so inviting.
You ve been watching me for almost three weeks now, he said point blank, toweling off his jet black hair.
I was squirming like a kid caught with their hand in the cookie jar inside.
Well, it is a public beach, I pointed out.
This elicited a sort of half smile. I thought it would only take a few days for you to introduce yourself. You have patience. I like that.
The arrogance! As if I were just trying to hit on him! I turned to walk away.
And you think I m an arrogant bastard. That s even better.
He fell in step beside me. We should talk. Let me buy you a coffee.
I was so stunned, I didn t really know how to react. I don t drink coffee, I snapped.
He smiled. I ll teach you.
Still flustered, I didn t know what he meant. Was he offering to teach me to drink coffee?
He then took my arm, firmly but gently, but I could feel the power and an undeniable surge of electricity. I stopped walking. I looked at him then.
His eyes were as blue as the ocean behind us.
You want to learn don t you? I can tell. The way you watch. And you re a quick learner too.
Oh and now you re an expert on me? I was still unsure, and nervous and anxious and using my only defense, trying to fend off this sudden intrusion; yet I was the real intruder.
He smiled again, the soft lines in the corner of his eyes deepening. I knew there was no harm to come from him.
You re feisty. He put out his hand. let s try this again. I m Ray.
I slowly took it and we shook, that spark traveling from his hand to mine.
Well Cam, how about that coffee now?
Needless to say, we had coffee. He did actually teach me to like coffee. As well as everything else he taught me.
I had to do mundane things like check the mail ( they knew at the post office I came about once a month and saved all the mail, mostly junk, in a crate after the box was full.) I had to get some groceries and animal feed and order my hay for the winter for the horses Galaxy and Helios (fondly Gal and Leo.)
Mrs Winters at the post office happily got my mail crate. There were more people than me who for their own reasons did not come into town often and she was used to this business. I sorted the mostly junk, tossing flyers and ads into the recycle bin before I left. I kept aside several magazines (subscribed in Benjamin s name), and picked up the only notable thing: a manila envelope that looked as though it had been roughed up under a riding mower. It was addressed in a shaky handwriting simply to Ray, Blue Sky Way, Colorado and the zip code. There was no return address. It amazed me that the post office could rarely find you when you needed them to but managed to find someone who was practiced at hiding.
I tore open the flap. Inside was a CD and a letter.
I don t know if you will remember me. My name is Ann Marie. You helped me many years back. My brother Scott was missing . You were able to find him and so influenced him by the end of our time together, he ended up going into the Army and Army Intelligence. He served a brilliant career and is in fact retiring as a decorated officer this year. I contacted you mainly because I have never repaid my favor. I would still like to hold up my end of the bargain. I owe you my brother s life. But also because I know Scott would want you at his retirement. I hope it doesn t sound silly, but you were the only man in his life he ever respected and you led him in the right path. I also know this is probably crazy after all these years, but if this letter does find you, I was told by another client that it would reach you by this address, I will pray we see you on October 23, Scott s retirement party. Don t worry about anything, we will take care of all the arrangements if you will be there. It would just mean so much. I included a movie I made about Scott s life hoping to inspire you to come and the details of the party are included. Ray, I just want another chance to thank you and hopefully repay my favor.
It was signed Anna Marie Stalling. Stalling. Before Stateman, after Sanderson. My mind quickly processed the exact location of the file in Ray s drawer in his office. I put the contents back into the envelope. I would watch the CD, then decide what to do. Maybe a phone number was included. But what a lousy thing to do on the phone.
I walked from the post office and deposited the mail in the Tahoe. I suddenly felt the hairs on the back of my neck raise and an uncomfortable feeling land between my shoulder blades. I turned as nonchalantly as possible. Scanning, sweeping the area with my eyes rapidly. Someone was watching me. Where were they? Why were they? I noticed a man walking rapidly away down the sidewalk past the post office. I linger another moment but the feeling is gone. Maybe he was just checking out my butt, I try to rationalize in as poorly a fashion as I can. Right.
I make a trip to the grocery store, now a bit more wary than I might have been earlier. In the old days, I would have spotted him and stopped him probably with some kind of gun drawn all in under three minutes. Yeah, well, those days are past. Now its all I can do to keep my anxiety at a manageable level in the store. A month s worth of groceries fills up the cart and I check out, paying my 350 dollar bill in cash. Again, I feel eyes on me. More than just casual who s that? eyes. A quick scan and I still can t spot them.
I quickly manage the other errands and am ready to make a quick break out of town. I long for the safety of the house. Leaving the feed store, I notice immediately on the windshield of the Tahoe, stuck under the wiper, a paper. Looking around, still seeing nothing, I snatched it off.
YOU CAN T HIDE FOREVER
I got in the truck, hands shaking. Checking the backseat and then locking the doors, I read it again. Neatly printed out on plain paper.
Who? And why?
Terrified now, I leave. I will be taking the long way home and keeping a watchful eye in the mirror. Here, I am somewhat vulnerable. I say somewhat. I felt between the seat and the console for the smooth steel of the Taurus 9mm pistol. I know there are 11 shots in there to defend my vulnerability. Somehow, the anxiety has subsided and is replaced by a feeling I have not felt in a long time. Anger. And anger makes locked doors in my mind open and training ingrained in there is suddenly as reflexive again as blinking.
Fine. No more hiding.